A New (Unlikely) Story About One of Putin's Notorious Pardons

On December 10, the Russian state news agency TASS published an article about an interview in which Russian President was asked about the use of presidential pardons in Russia.

Putin’s interviewer, Yekaterina Vinokurova, a journalist and member of Russia’s Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, remarked to the president that pardons had rarely been granted in Russia in recent times. Putin responded that under Russia’s pardon law, convicts must admit guilt before receiving a pardon.

“To be fair, I just don’t remember exactly, but I think that it is in the law that a person should plead guilty,” TASS quoted the president as saying. “Otherwise, if they don’t admit guilt, how can they be pardoned?”

The interview then turned to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former owner of the Yukos oil company who was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony following a conviction in 2005 for charges that included fraud and tax evasion.

While serving his term in 2010, he was further charged with embezzlement and money laundering, convicted and given additional prison time.

Critics condemned both trials as politically-motivated.

Putin pardoned Khodorkovsky in 2013, just after the erstwhile oil tycoon sent Putin a personal letter asking for clemency so he could visit his mother, who was then critically ill. Observers noted that the pardon for Khodorkovsky, along with clemency for members of the dissident punk band Pussy Riot, who were serving two-year sentences for performing a song in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, came just a few months before Russia was set to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Black Sea city of Sochi.

According to TASS, Putin, responding to a comment that Khodorkovsky had been pardoned without having admitted guilt, said:

“He did indirectly. In a letter to me, he pleaded [guilty] and asked to release him before his prison term ended because his mom was ill and died, and I did that, I pardoned him.”

The assertion that pardon recipients must admit guilt is false, and Khodorkovsky has denied that he admitted guilt in his letter to Putin.

Article 50 of Russia’s constitution states:“ Everyone convicted for a crime shall have the right to appeal against the judgment of a superior court according to the rules envisaged by the federal law, as well as to ask for pardon or a mitigation of punishment.”

Article 89, which enumerates the powers of Russia’s president, states that the president shall “decide on pardoning.”

The Kremlin’s website states:

“[A] pardon may be granted to: individuals who have been convicted by Russian courts for criminal offenses and are serving their sentences on Russian territory; individuals who have been convicted by foreign courts and are serving their sentences in Russia in accordance with international treaties to which the Russian Federation is a signatory; and individuals who have served a sentence but whose conviction remains on record.”

It adds:

“As a rule, pardons are not granted to: convicts who have knowingly committed a crime while on parole; convicts who repeatedly violate prison rules or other regulations while serving their sentences; convicts who have previously gotten an early release from prison (or waiver of other court-imposed punishment); convicts previously released through amnesty; convicts previously released from serving a sentence by an act of pardon; which previously replaced the sentence imposed by the courts with a more lenient punishment.”

On December 10, the same day Putin’s interview comments were reported, Khodorkovsky denied having “indirectly” admitted guilt in his personal letter to Putin.

“There was no direct or indirect confession of guilt,” Khodorkovsky told MBK Media, an independent news outlet he founded after being released from prison in 2013. “ either really does not remember that I refused a pardon with a guilty plea, or deliberately misleads. I am grateful to him that he gave me the opportunity to say goodbye to my mother, and I have no complaints if this is age-related forgetfulness.”

During Khodorkovsky’s first trial, which was roundly criticized by international observers such as the Council of Europe and the British Parliament, he insisted that he was innocent. The defense was prevented from calling many of its witnesses, and some employees who could have served as defense witnesses were intimidated by the authorities. In addition, some of the accusations against him were for activities that were legal at the time they took place.

Shortly after his release from prison in December 2013, Khodorkovsky told the Russian media outlet Vedomosti that in his letter to Putin, he had written about his mother’s medical conditions and promised not to engage in political activity or seek damages for his lost stock in Yukos. Khodorkovsky did not say he had admitted guilt.

During the Soviet Union’s final years, Khodorkovsky founded one of the country’s first private banks, Menatep, and his early business activities were likened to those of a criminal enterprise. In addition, the way he acquired Yukos in 1995 for a sum many times below its actual value is considered a prime example of the corrupt way that Russia carried out privatization in the period immediately following the Soviet collapse.

After he was sentenced in 2005, Yukos was acquired by the majority state-owned Rosneft oil company, headed by Igor Sechin, a close Putin ally.

In January 2020, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that while Khodorkovsky’s trial wasn’t politically motivated, Khodorkovsky and business partner Platon Lebedev were denied their rights in their second trials in 2009 and 2010. In 2011, the court ruled in favor of Khodorkovsky after he sued Russian authorities over his treatment in prison.

In 2007, Yukos’ former shareholders sued the Russian government in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, alleging that the authorities had abused the court system to bankrupt Yukos and facilitate its acquisition by Rosneft. In 2014, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, awarding $50 billion in damages, but Russia successfully appealed the decision in 2016.

This year, another Dutch court overturned that decision and once again ordered that Russia to pay the plaintiffs $50 billion. Russia has appealed.

Following his release and exile from Russia, Khodorkovsky lived in Switzerland before moving in 2015 to London, where he resides to this day. Khodorkovsky was not a party to the Yukos shareholder lawsuit and thus will receive no part of the $50 billion in compensation should Russia ever pay it. In 2016, he managed to convince an Irish court to unfreeze assets valued at around $100 million, which Irish authorities had frozen in 2011 after his second trial and conviction in Russia.

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